In a Culture of Never Enough, a Culture at War, “Learning” Real Contentment

Contentment and I have a troubled history. Many reasons: physical limitations, a vivid imagination, a propensity to live in the future… In addition, our culture of More and Better torches our desires with the gasoline of glossy mags, dark theaters, Facebook vacation pictures, clothes we’ll never need for a life we’ll never live…
Election year aggravates our struggles. Each side is spending billions to cast their vision of the better life we’ll live once they are elected. Between now and November we will be subjected to an endless parade of speeches, promises, ads, polls and robocalls designed to inflate our expectations so we will vote for change. It’s all even more frustrating if we are disappointed with the options for change. How can we live with true contentment?

The Apostle Paul said, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content…I have learned the secret of facing abundance and need” (Eph 4:11-12). I used to read those verses and think, “Good for you, Paul. I wish.” I still think that sometimes. But I am further into contentment recovery. Maybe I’ve even learned a little of the secret of contentment.
One of my greatestest breakthroughs came from reading Ann Voskamp’s close-to-the-heart chronicle of taking a dare to list 1000 gifts in her everyday experience–about three a day for a year. Ann describes herself as a “woman who speaks one language, the language of the fall—discontentment and self-condemnation, the critical eye and the never satisfied.” This was a woman I could relate to. So I took the dare.
As I began to search out and record God’s good gifts in my journal of thanks, my simple, written acknowledgement of gratitude began to change into something else. The Spirit began to “open the eyes of my heart” to more clearly see the worth and spiritual beauty of the gifts and the loving generosity behind them. This triggered deeply authentic feelings of gratitude in my heart.
Like Ann, my focus began to change more from what I did not have to what I did have. Gratitude enables a way of seeing that leads to a deeply-felt contentment which leads to more gratitude…
…which leads to a deepening trust in God. The more we experience and affirm the goodness of God’s heart toward us, the more overwhelmed we become with God’s grace and lavish generosity. As we count the ways God deeply loves us and is for us, we naturally begin to value the Giver more and more. Like a bride drawn to her groom’s lavish and sacrificial gifts given to woo her. Even when the giving of thanks–for a chronic disease, for the loss of a loved one–is hard, hard, hard.
As I journeyed with Ann through her hard places and watched her choose to say words of thanks instead of words of anger or despair, I was inspired to do the same. I found myself in a hard place. Someone let me down. I wanted to write “the book” on how unfair it was. How damaging to our relationship. How all these negative consequences would ripple out to diminish and destroy.
Instead I made my pen write “thank you for”…and made my mind fill in the blank. I did it again. And again.
And, as Ann bears witness, it is the closest thing to magic we may ever experience. The anger softens, the eyes of my heart were opened to God at work. God drawing near. Love returned. This too shall pass. All is well.
I am still learning. Not arrived. But I am finding that wellspring of contentment in searching out the gifts of my Father and seeking, really seeking his face…
As often happens when we read a life-changing book, God deepened the impact with extra links and sidebars. I began to think about what I wrote about my own spiritual journey in my book Godsight*:
"At a relatively young age rheumatoid arthritis forced me to surrender the hope that I would find the life I long for here. With gratitude I looked back to the cross and Jesus' sacrifice. But gratitude for what God had done for me in the past did not fully engage a heart that lives in the future.
"As I’ve poured over what Scripture shows us of heaven, I’ve caught a clearer glimpse of my eternal future and all the promises I expect God to fulfill. It was like installing a Vortec V-8 engine of hope in an old, limping Volkswagen. I could gun the motor and feel the coursing energy of faith."
Hope was the jet fuel pulled me out of living in duty and resignation. But jet fuel is highly combustible. To live mainly motivated by hope, especially the hope of transformation and bringing God's kingdom in this world is to continually deal with holy frustration.
I'm learning that giving thanks is like an engine additive that makes hope less combustible. We focus not just on the future but on the present where God is giving us so many beautiful expressions of his love. Life is so much more peaceful and contented when I live from hope AND gratitude.
One more sidebar: I read in Psalm 50, “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving…the one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me…” New thought to ponder: In what ways is thanksgiving a sacrifice? What do we give up?
I’m thinking it is many things…the temporary feel-good buzz of our anger, of writing “the book”…our right to self-justification, even justice…our vision of what should be or could be…our finite perspective on a situation…
When we sacrifice all this, what might we gain? Authentic, down to the bottom of our souls contentment.
How has God helped you be content, whatever your circumstances?
(*My book, Godsight is currently 99 cents at Christianbook.com)
Lael Arrington
Faith and Culture: Live Wisely l Love Well

Lael writes and speaks about faith and culture and how God renews our vision and desire for Him and his Kingdom. She earned a master's degree (MAT) in the history of ideas from the University of Texas at Dallas, and has taught Western culture and apologetics at secular and Christian schools and colleges. Her long-term experience with rheumatoid arthritis and being a pastor’s wife has deepened her desire to minister to the whole person—mind, heart, soul and spirit. Lael has co-hosted a talk radio program, The Things That Matter Most, on secular stations in Houston and Dallas about what we believe and why we believe it with guests as diverse as Dr. Deepak Chopra, atheist Sam Harris and VeggieTales creator Phil Vischer. (Programs are archived on the website.) Lael has authored four books, including a March 2011 soft paper edition of A Faith and Culture Devotional (now titled Faith and Culture: A Guide to a Culture Shaped by Faith), Godsight, and Worldproofing Your Kids. Lael’s writing has also been featured in Focus on the Family and World magazines, and she has appeared on many national radio and television programs. Lael and her husband, Jack, now make their home in South Carolina.